The Literary Society of Broadway (I) – 1950s Classics

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m offering the first post in a new monthly feature here on this blog — a sort of “potpourri” series for classic Broadway plays, specifically comedies, that I’m studying for (mostly) the first time. I’ve long wanted to read more scripts, so I’m finally making the necessary commitment. I’ve got at least a year’s worth of material ready, and we’ll see how it goes… For this initial entry, I selected three well-known titles from the 1950s — all of which were made into major motion pictures. Let me know what you think!



Logline: While his wife’s away for the summer, a married man fantasizes about the girl upstairs.

Author: George Axelrod | Original Broadway Director: John Gerstad

Original Broadway Cast: Tom Ewell, Vanessa Brown, Robert Emhardt, Neva Patterson, Marilyn Clark, Joan Donovan, Pat Fowler, George Ives, George Keane, Johnny Klein, Irene Moore

Thoughts: The Seven Year Itch is best remembered for its 1955 film adaptation, a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe that contains an iconic scene of her standing over a subway grate. Neither Monroe nor said grate is in the play, an otherwise funny and well-written comedy about infidelity, featuring a terrific star part, Tom Ewell’s Richard, whose unfiltered thoughts, anxious memories, and alternatively sexy and nervous fantasies create a multi-dimensional character with fears and flaws, yielding relatable laughs that also feel rooted entirely in the social and sexual mores of the early ’50s. With long monologues and opportunities to play a variety of emotions, the right actor can turn The Seven Year Itch into a tour de force. The problem is no other role is allowed to be as well-defined, with “The Girl” especially underdeveloped in comparison. Now, if The Girl was to only exist within Richard’s imagination, or largely there, then the discrepancy between how nuanced he is and how generic she is wouldn’t be so concerning, but so much of the text is about them interacting sincerely, and in those scenes, it’s hard not to wish that she was better realized. The moment at the end of Act Two where we hear her inner voice for the first time seems like an attempt to explore her interior life in the same way the entire show has heretofore been dominated by Richard’s, but it’s so brief that it only serves to highlight the disparity in our access to her versus our access to him. It would probably be better if that exchange didn’t occur, for then we could maybe pretend this is intentional — that the play is deliberately focused on him alone. But since it tries in this beat with her, it’s difficult to shake the notion that The Seven Year Itch indeed fails to be as thoughtful as it wants to be with The Girl. Of course, Monroe’s charm certainly helps the film — which is also notable for changing the climax so that the pair doesn’t sleep together. Personally, I think this tweak is actually smart — Richard’s paranoia about The Girl is funnier if it remains a ridiculous fantasy that he doesn’t act on: a harmless diversion that brings him to the brink of sin and nevertheless does change his perspective, rather than a legitimate tryst that gives his ego a sense of victory, no matter how much he regrets it later. Overall, though, if The Girl is a weakness, Richard is a strength, and The Seven Year Itch, even without Marilyn Monroe, is an interesting study.

Jackson’s Rating: 6.5/10



Logline: A New York playboy’s love life shocks his visiting married friend.

Author: Max Shulman & Robert Paul Smith | Original Broadway Director: Michael Gordon

Original Broadway Cast: Ronny Graham, Robert Preston, Kim Hunter, Janet Riley, Joey Faye, Jack Manning, Parker McCormick, Julia Meade

Thoughts: Max Shulman, whom this blog remembers as the creator of The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis, cowrote this romantic comedy that does a good job contrasting basic types of characters against each other — there’s the bachelor lothario living in New York who uses quintessential Shulman words to define girls (like “soft” and “creamy”) and his hometown best friend, who wed his high school sweetheart, had a bunch of kids, and is only in the city now on business, cracking wise about his wall-to-wall carpeted life. Then there are two of the playboy’s women — the sophisticate who wants marriage but pretends she doesn’t, and the naive ingenue who nevertheless knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. As the married man falls for the sophisticate, he is shocked at how his buddy takes her for granted, especially in favor of this new young go-getter. After a series of fights related to his tomcatting, the bachelor ends up proposing to both ladies, and they have to straighten everything out the next morning — with the bachelor going for the young thing who swept him off his feet, and his married pal, before he heads back home, convincing the sophisticate to go out and find someone who deserves her. The plot isn’t as predictable as most rom-coms, but it’s fairly lightweight, and so much of the play is taken up by a subplot involving the married man’s pursuit of a cure for the common cold that doesn’t really have thematic bearing on the relationship maneuverings and thus feels incidental, or not well-applied. (The 1955 film adaptation actually removes this angle and is probably the better for it.) A lot of the language is snappy and occasionally funny, but the only truly thoughtful stuff for character comes from the sophisticate (Kim Hunter in the play; Celeste Holm in the film), who gets an arc but not a happy ending (at least, not on the stage), and ultimately, I’m not sure there’s anything here that’s spectacular or one-of-a-kind, relative to other relationship and sex based comedies from the 1950s. Oh, I bet it can be enlivened by smart players in performance, but as a readable text, it’s good… not quite great.

Jackson’s Rating: 6/10



Logline: The research department at a network is threatened by encroaching automation.

Author: William Marchant | Original Broadway Director: Joseph Fields

Original Broadway Cast: Shirley Booth, Byron Sanders, Dorothy Blackburn, Clarice Blackburn, Anne-Marie Gayer, Frank Milan, Louis Gossett, Elizabeth Wilson, Harry Ellerbe, Mary Gildea, Joyce Van Patten, Mike Steen, Doris Roberts, Frank Roberts, Sterling Jensen, Wayne Carson

Thoughts: The stage version of The Desk Set is basically an ensemble workplace comedy with a little bit of romance inside, while the 1957 film adaptation pivots the piece into more of a rom-com by tweaking a key relationship. Originally, it was a showcase for the hilarious Shirley Booth, playing the head of research at a fictional network — a woman with a brilliant memory for details, overseeing a group of young but decently contrasted ladies who answer the phones and give information. Conflict comes to their world when a cold and “robotic” efficiency expert examines their department, with the likely goal of automating their jobs — thanks to a new computer called an EMERAC. As the ladies fight against a seemingly inevitable trajectory — the encroaching computer age — the Shirley Booth character pines over one of her bosses, who has strung her along for years. It’s a unique, forward-thinking story that speaks to issues that we still deal with today (as of 2023), regarding man vs. machine, but it’s mired, joyfully, in the fears and realities of 1950s America, where the computer is a crude and novel invention. Indeed, the climactic third act centerpiece, where the women reveal themselves to be more capable than the much-touted EMERAC, is a lot of silly fun — and a vindication of something we all want to believe in: the irreplaceable necessity of the human touch. The ending, with the expert revealing that the machine was only there to assist, not replace them, is a cop-out, but the storytelling is quick and light, the writing is amusing without being false, and the character work, particularly with the leading lady, is supreme… That said, I think the film actually manages to be an improvement — a trend in this post — with the casting of Katharine Hepburn as the head of research and Spencer Tracy as the efficiency expert naturally encouraging a romantic comedy where they are centralized stars. This is wise; in the play, the best scenes are between those two characters — that’s where the conflict is best represented (in human form), and where the richest tension, both comedic and dramatic, exists. So, by building their bond, the screenplay leans into the meatiest parts of the stage text and further cements the theme of man, and our capacities, being greater than machines. It’s a primo thesis for a 1950s rom-com.

Jackson’s Rating: 6.5/10



Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more sitcom fun!